Belfast becomes one of the world's 'fastest growing cruise destinations'

Belfast saw a record 43 tourist ships sail into port this year

A record number of luxury cruise ships have come to Belfast this year, making it one of the fastest growing cruise destinations in the world.

Almost 80,000 passengers and crew have sailed into Belfast this year on 43 different tourist ships.

One of the big draws is the new Titanic Visitor Centre, which so far has welcomed people from 111 different countries.

Belfast is no longer building ships, but it is now attracting them.

Cruise passengers in Belfast Almost 80,000 passengers and crew have sailed into Belfast so far in 2012

The peace process has transformed the city. During the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s the cruise ship industry steered clear of Belfast.

It was not until 1997 that modern luxury liners started sailing up Belfast Lough.

'Curiosity'

In recent years, numbers have soared. Next year, more than 50 are expected.

So what's the big attraction?

The Giant's Causeway, golf and Titanic Belfast are pulling in the visitors. However, there is also a human factor - curiosity.

Gerry Lennon, chief executive of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, said: "Curiosity is a huge driver for tourism. A lot of people are curious about Belfast and Northern Ireland.

"The political stability has given us that ability to go to the market-place and now say 'look what we have to offer'."

The Glens of Antrim, the walls of Londonderry and Belfast's shopping districts are also proving popular.

The recent three nights of rioting in one part of north Belfast do not seem to have put people off.

Money has been invested in Belfast Harbour to ensure it can cope with the increasingly large vessels sailing into the city, including the latest arrival, the 113,000-tons Emerald Princess.

'Novelty factor'
Cruise ship Belfast is no longer building ships, but it is now attracting them.

Tony McAuley, commercial officer for Belfast Harbour, said: "Once we get people here, the facilities almost sell themselves."

The Titanic Visitor Centre has attracted more than 500,000 visitors since it opened six months ago - double what was expected.

The cruise ship business alone is worth an estimated £15m a year to Northern Ireland's economy.

There is a certain novelty factor to Belfast at the moment. This will wear off in time.

In the meantime, the city is enjoying riding the wave of international interest.

Follow Mark Simpson on Twitter: @BBCMarkSimpson

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